Philippines’ Sabah ghosts come back to haunt AquinoBy Edwin Espejo Mar 05, 2013 10:59AM UTC
More than 40 years ago a young senator delivered a speech in the Philippine Senate exposing a cabal hatched by then President Ferdinand Marcos to invade Sabah under codename ‘Operation Merdeka’.
A group of young Muslim recruits was covertly trained in an island off Manila Bay for an invasion of Sabah, now a flashpoint in the diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Philippines, according to the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.
At that time, the Philippines had not yet dropped its claim to the northern Borneo territory that had been ruled by the Sultanate of Sulu until it was leased in the 1800s to a British trading company, which in turn ceded it to the Malaysian government. Malaysia eventually annexed Sabah to its territory.
(READ MORE: Malaysia attacks Filipinos to end Borneo siege)
The botched plan to invade Sabah led to the massacre of all but one of the 28 Muslim recruits. He later revealed the harrowing ordeal as they were mistreated by the government soldiers who trained them, and later executed many of them.
While the late senator denounced the Jabidah Massacre (also known as the Corregidor Massacre), he never renounced the historical Philippine claim on Sabah.
In the years that followed, after Martial Law was declared in 1972, the Philippine government essentially abandoned its sovereign assertion over the mineral-rich Sabah region of Borneo. While it has not legally and diplomatically renounced its claim, it has failed to seriously pursue its case before any international bodies and courts.
Following the outbreak of the Moro rebellion in Mindanao in the 1970s, Philippine governments wisely shied away from pursuing any claims on Sabah as Malaysia was then viewed as a potential source of materiel and financial support for the Moro rebel forces.
Malaysia would later play a major role in the peace agreements between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari and the Ramos administration and the ongoing peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Malaysia, in fact, is the third country facilitator in the GPH-MILF peace talks that the Philippine government says it is now winding up. Obviously, Malaysia has its own agenda in agreeing to broker the peace negotiations – Sabah being high on the list.
(READ MORE: In Malaysia, fear grips Borneo’s Filipino population)
Given these contexts, it would now be diplomatic suicide for the present Philippine government to entertain any thoughts of reviving the Sabah claim even if some 280 armed “followers” of the heirs of the Sultan Sulu are now holed up in an island off Sabah in mainland Borneo and engaging Malaysian security forces in armed confrontation. As of this writing, 27 have been killed from both sides from what the Malaysian press is now describing as an invasion. But for the Filipino ‘invaders’, their foray into Sabah is always a “journey back home.”
But is the namesake and son of the late senator, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, morally and legally right in his outright dismissal of the continuing claims of the heirs of Sultanate of Sulu over Sabah?
Or better still, is threatening to file charges against Kiram and his band of followers the correct strategy to ease the tension in Sabah? Will his late father, a consummate politician, give a stamp of approval on his current stand on the issue?
Anybody who is below the age 50 will have less appreciation of the Sabah issue. It was an insignificant issue for President Aquino until the Kirams set foot, fully armed, on Borneo
Now it has become a diplomatic and a domestic headache for the president. He has been widely criticized for his initial nonchalance at the beginning of the stand-off.
Then he turned intransigent when defied by the Kirams. Now he is crying conspiracy. For this, the President is taking a beating in public opinion.
I seriously doubt if his later father would have taken the same position his son is now doggedly defending. But there is no use invoking the memories of the dead.